Holocaust landscapes

The Holocaust, says Professor Tim Cole, is no longer a single, monolithic event, but rather a shifting nexus of chronology and location. In his latest book, Cole considers the places and stories of this catastrophic period in 20th-century history, provoking new questions as to how we might change the way we view the Holocaust now and in the future

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Here, writing for History Extra, Cole considers some of the most significant Holocaust landscapes, revealing how genocide rarely stood still…

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Rather than telling the story of the Holocaust primarily through the lens of history with its emphasis on chronology, I wanted this book to approach these events through the lens of geography and its emphasis on space and place. Through telling the stories of some of the very different places that were central to the events, I show how genocide was always on the move. As the killings moved first east, and then west, individuals, families and communities were also on the move. The killers headed east to the victims in the first phase of the genocide, before the victims were taken west in the later stages.

But Holocaust landscapes uncover more than simply stories of Jews being moved around Europe as they were killed or worked to death. They also point to stories of Jews moving around Europe – and beyond – as they tried to put some distance between themselves and the killings.

Ghetto

Originally set up in German-occupied Poland from late 1939 onwards, ghettos concentrated and segregated Jews behind walls and fences created in city streets. Initially, at least, there was something familiar about these Holocaust landscapes. They were not purpose-built concentration camps far removed from home, but somewhere much closer to home (and in some cases even home itself) – domestic buildings within the heart of the city. However, those buildings were now surrounded by a wall or fence.

Over the course of the months a ghetto like that in central Warsaw was in existence, the death rate soared as a mixture of overcrowding and severe reductions of food being allowed into the ghetto led to disease and starvation. The only way the ghetto population was able to survive was through smuggling: smugglers brought food in through the ghetto gates or over the ghetto wall to sell to those who could afford the black market prices.

But while Jews were dying on the ghetto streets in the winter of 1941, the mass murder of Warsaw Jews did not take place until the first deportations started to the death camp at Treblinka in July 1942. The shift from concentrating Jews in ghettos to murdering Jews in camps took place after the German invasion of Soviet territory in June 1941, and that involved another set of landscapes – forests further east.

Forest

There are two linked but distinct stories that emerge over the course of the war in the forests of eastern Poland and the Soviet Union. During 1941 and 1942, forests were used by the Germans as ad hoc murder sites. During 1943 and 1944, forests were used by Jews as hiding places. In both cases, what the forest provided was the camouflage offered by dense vegetation. Likewise, in both cases the events of the Holocaust generally took place very close to home.

(Original Caption) German civilians file past the open coffins containing the bodies of 161 Polish Jews, shot by SS Troops in the woods outside Nuerenburg, as the bodies await burial in the town's Catholic cemetery. One woman is being forced to look by wordless command from American soldier, (R). Note the expressions on small children's faces. The civilians were forced to serve as pallbearers in the one mile march from the woods to the cemetery.

German civilians file past open coffins containing the bodies of 161 Polish Jews shot by SS Troops in the woods outside Nuerenburg, as the bodies await burial in the town’s Catholic cemetery. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

The forests represent a time and place where genocide was enacted and evaded in the neighbourhood. This was not a story of mass movement of Jews across the continent to purpose-built death camps, but a much more local story of Jews be-ing gathered together and shot on the outskirts of town. It was not a story of crossing national boundaries as Jews tried to reach neutral countries, but rather of Jews fleeing ghettos and eking out an existence by hiding in the woods close by. Here they used the stuff that the forest offered for shelter, warmth and food, but had to supplement this with food given by, or stolen from, farmers living on the forest edge.

During this period, some Jews hid in small groups that tended to build on existing family or neighbourhood ties. Others, meanwhile, entered the masculine world of large partisan camps that existed in the space between the German retreat and the Soviet advance in the final years of the war in the east.

Camp

While in 1941, as the late Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg pointed out, “the killers… moved to the victims”, in 1942 there was a shift in murderous policy and practice as “the victims were brought to the killers”. This shift meant that Jews were no longer being shot into hastily-dug pits in forests, but taken to purpose-built killing centres.

Initially developed in the Nazi German camp of Chelmno in western Poland, the use of gassing – rather than bullets – to kill large numbers of Jews was expanded in the so-called Operation Reinhard camps of Belzec, Sobibór and Treblinka where, in the main, Polish Jews were murdered. The method was perfected in Auschwitz-Birkenau where the majority of Hungarian Jews (Budapest aside) were gassed and cremated over the course of just a few weeks in the early summer of 1944.

Holocaust: Massenerschießungen im Arbeits- und späteren Todeslager Belzec, Polen. Photographie. 1942.Holocaust: Mass execution in the concentration camp "Belzec", Poland. Photography. 1942

Mass execution in the concentration camp Belzec, Poland, 1942. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Those Hungarian Jews – generally teenage and young adult men and women (without children) – who were selected for labour when they arrived off the trains that brought them to the ramp inside Birkenau, were spared gassing and entered the network of camps utilising slave labour. One of these was just a short way from Birkenau, around the I.G. Farben works established in Monowitz. Others were hundreds of miles away, forming a continent-wide network of camps servicing the war industries and reliant on forced labour.

In contrast to the time when killing and hiding took place in the locality in the woods close to home, the rapid development of death and labour camps meant that Jews were being moved vast distances across Europe to the alien and multilingual spaces of the SS camp system.

Train

Critical to this story of mass movement of hundreds of thousands of Jews across Europe was the train network that delivered Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then took those selected for labour further west to labour camps in Germany. These journeys have been remembered as deeply traumatic. In part this was about the disorientation of deportees simply not knowing where they were being taken. But it was also because of the terrible conditions that Jews faced packed into overcrowded freight wagons without food or water and only a bucket (and sometimes not even this) to use as a toilet.

These dark landscapes are remembered less in terms of what was seen, and more in terms of what was smelt – the stench of human waste. For those who survived the initial selections at Auschwitz-Birkenau, this was often neither their first rail journey nor their last. They generally had had to survive multiple rail journeys, as they were taken wherever their labour was needed. During some of these later, long rail journeys, the death rate in the trains was terribly high. Survivors remember being taken westward by slow trains in overcrowded open wagons during the freezing winter of 1944 with no food or water. Trains represented not simply movement between genocidal sites, but themselves were sites of genocide.

Arrival of a deportation train bringing Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz death camp in Poland, circa 1942. Auschwitz-Birkenau (1940-1945) was the largest of the German Concentration and Extermination camps. 1.1 million people, 90 per cent of them Jews are thought to have died there most of them in the gas chambers. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Arrival of a deportation train bringing Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz death camp in Poland, c1942. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Mountain and sea

But the story of movement across the continent was not simply a story of Jews being deported to camps and transported between camps. It was also a story of Jews escaping across national boundaries in search of the safety afforded by the neutral nations.  In many cases these lay beyond the natural boundaries of mountain ranges (Switzerland) or stretches of sea (Sweden). Crossing these required both transport and local guides, both of which could be bought for a price.

Some Jews in western Europe managed to make their way south-eastwards to the Alps and cross into Switzerland with the help of a mountain guide, although many were turned back if they were caught at the border. In 1943, thousands of Danish Jews fled to neutral Sweden across the Öresund – the stretch of sea between the two countries – shuttled over by fishermen, and accepted into Sweden which had by this time made it clear that Jews trying to get into the country would not be turned back. Those who made their way to Sweden or Switzerland, or had earlier made their way as far as Shanghai (as a number of German and Austrian Jews did in the late 1930s), felt that safety lay outside of German-occupied Europe, in neutral country.

Others, the Anne Frank family being the most famous, tried to lie low within occupied Europe and hide out close to home in a similar way to those Jews further east who took to the forests.

River

For most Jews, the idea of making it to a neutral country seemed unimaginable. But what if a neutral country was to make it to them? That was, in a sense, what happened in an area of Budapest on the banks of the Danube during the winter of 1944. Hungarian Jews had been deported en masse to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the early summer of 1944, but the deportations had been halted before Jews in the capital were taken. Consequently they remained living in the dispersed ghetto in Budapest during the summer and autumn before being placed into one of two ghettos in the winter. One was a closed ghetto more akin to that in Warsaw; the other was a collection of houses under the protection of the neutral powers.

One key individual (but not the only one) who played a part in this experiment in extra-territoriality was Raoul Wallenberg, working with the Swedish embassy in Budapest in the second half of 1944. Tens of thousands of Jews in the city were issued with protective papers by the Swedish, Swiss and Spanish authorities, and housed by them in protected buildings – supposedly awaiting their emigration after the end of the war. While in theory these Jews were protected, in practice their paperwork could be ripped up by gangs of Hungarian fascists and they could be dragged from their ‘protected’ houses. In the winter of 1944, the genocide once again took very much a local turn, as Jews in this European capital were shot into the icy waters of the Danube in the centre of the city.

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Raoul Wallenberg. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/East News/Getty Images)

Road

The shootings into the Danube in the winter of 1944 were part of the end game of the Holocaust as the Soviets advanced deep into German-occupied territory and then into Germany itself. As they retreated, the Germans took their prisoners with them. In January 1945, more than 50,000 prisoners were evacuated from the camps in Auschwitz. Rather than being taken west by trains at this late point in the war, their initial journeys were on foot, through the thick snow of a Polish winter. For many this was not the last evacuation on foot – or as many later called it, “death march”. Further evacuations took place from camps within Germany and Austria as the Soviets and western Allies advanced. In the final weeks of the war in Europe, some found themselves in columns literally being marched around in circles.

During the “death marches” the entire camp – prisoners and guards – took to the roads. With the boundary fence of the camp gone, a mobile boundary was created around the column of prisoners by the guards whose rifle sightlines replaced the fence. This boundary was always on the move and those who fell behind were dispatched with a bullet to the head. After months of harsh conditions in the camp system, prisoners found it hard to keep up with the pace and relied on each other to half-drag them along the roads. Many did not make it. For the first time, genocide became highly visible on the sides of the road in Germany, rather than hidden in forests or camps further east.

Camp

Those who survived the evacuations from camps in the east were dumped into the few remaining camps in Germany. These camps were not purpose-built death camps like Treblinka or Auschwitz-Birkenau, but had been part of the labour camps or concentration camp system. In 1945 they took on a new function as the dumping ground for tens of thousands of prisoners – mainly Jews – and were sites of terrifying chaos. Rather than being places of either killing or purposeful labour, these camps appeared to survivors to be simply sites where they had been abandoned to die. Particularly shocking to survivors – and to the western troops that liberated camps like Belsen and Dachau – was the fact that bodies were not cremated or buried but simply stacked up in piles.

(Original Caption) During the advance of the 2nd Army, the huge concentration camp at Belsen, was relieved. Some 60,000 civilians, mostly suffering from typhus, typhoid, and dysentry, are dying in their hundreds daily, despite the frantic efforts being made by medical services rushed to the camp. The camp was littered with dead and dying and on closer investigation it was discovered that the huts capable of housing about 30 people in many cases were holding as many as 500, it was impossible to estimate the number of dead among them, the other were too weak to remove the bodies so they just had to remain. Photo shows views of one of the communal graves in the camp.

A communal grave in the Belsen camp. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

These were places, in the words of one survivor, that were “worse than Auschwitz” because of the sheer chaos that meant that the dead, dying and barely living co-occupied the space. In some ways these were not so much genocidal landscapes – in the way that the forests or death camps or even the river Danube and road network were – but post-genocidal landscapes. They were dumping grounds where killing was replaced by dying, and for many survivors that was more terrifying because it seemed that no one was in control anymore.

Moving Holocaust landscapes

When the western Allies liberated the camps, it was these camps of ‘mass dying’ that they discovered, and so the Holocaust first emerged as an event characterised by piles of unburied corpses. In the decades after the end of the war, our intellectual imagination has shifted further eastwards. Auschwitz replaced Belsen as the central Holocaust landscape, and the ruthless efficiency of the gas chamber and crematoria reframed the genocide as the most modern of crimes.

More recently, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening up of new archives and landscapes, our gaze has shifted even further east. Here a different genocide has emerged – one of neighbours, very much close to home in hundreds and hundreds of mass shootings. All these different landscapes – of east and west, refashioned and purpose-built – were Holocaust landscapes. During the war, genocide never stood still but moved first east and then west, and then west again, in the deadly space of military advance and then retreat.

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Tim Cole is professor of social history at Bristol University and director of the Brigstow Institute, conducting research into what it means to be human in the 21st century. His latest book, Holocaust Landscapes, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum.